Pew study reports Jewish community is shrinking, but ‘Soul Doctor’ on Broadway suggests it still lives


Even as the New York Times reported on a new survey showing once again that American Jews are disassociating from Judaism at a rapid pace, the Broadway musical “Soul Doctor” (which closes its run this Sunday) was celebrating the life of a man who knew how to reach the unaffiliated and help them find their way back. The performances end with audiences of about 900 people gleefully singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (the nation of Israel lives).

The Times article was based on Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a survey that sought to understand everything of consequence about American Jewish life, from birthrate trends, to core beliefs, to religious affiliations, to cultural identity. The results were alarming, but by no means surprising.

The portrait’s principal finding — that there is a large number of Jews who are growing up in America more assimilated and less affiliated, with many professing no belief at all — merely confirms trends we have been seeing for over three decades. There are few exceptions to the trend, and every stream of Judaism appears to share its impact.

The trend itself, first identified in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, was never a surprise, but the extent of it did catch the Jewish communal leadership unawares. When Jewish communities either turn their backs on religion or tradition, or impose ever more burdensome restrictions that are too difficult to comply with, the generations grow more distant from Judaism and get caught up instead in an increasingly more open and broadly acceptable secular society. The youngest members often have no connection, no appreciation, or reject what is being told to them. They all see little reason to connect to a religion that seems more like a relic of a past age, or a weight they no longer need to carry.

A similar trend can be seen in Israel. Those who fled from foreign lands, fought to see Israel born, and then fought to preserve it are part of what is known as the Frontier Zionists. The children born today have few to no memories of bloody existential threats, and no connection to the historic debates that built the land and made it safe for Jews; they no longer feel the will to fight to preserve the country, taking what they have for granted.

In the Sholem Aleichem-inspired musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye the Dairyman said upon learning of an expected pogrom about to befall his small village of Anatevka, “I know, I know we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” My generation and older ones laughed at that with the bittersweet pain of knowing that it was funny because it was true; Jewish youth in today’s America have no clue what that even means.

In a way, Jewish success in America and in Israel has hurt the Jewish people in a way that only time will be able to truly articulate. Youth today just want to be kids, they don’t see themselves as having been born to a cause. As scholars have noted in the past, there was a downside to the Enlightenment for Jews. While it opened doors to let Jews enter a formerly closed secular world, it also allowed Jews to free themselves from the grip of communal practices and traditions. The response of the traditionalists — “innovation is forbidden by the Torah,” in the words of the Chasam Sofer (chadash asur min ha-Torah) — served only to reaffirm to those seeking a more liberal environment that tradition was antithetical to modernity. By the time Samson Raphael Hirsch proposed his more inclusive neo-Orthodoxy, it was too late to stem the outgoing tide.

Numbers do not lie, and Pew’s statistics show that the Jewish community in America will look a lot different, and arguably be a lot weaker, very soon.

The study showed that Jews of all walks are mostly proud to be Jewish, but it’s a pride that does not necessarily translate into the practice of the ritual and religious aspects of Judaism, and it does nothing to stem the rising rate of intermarriage. While the study shows that some of the strongest growth sectors of Judaism are within the Reform movement, which appears to be understanding a lot quicker than others that the attrition rates need to be reversed, assimilation appears to be growing most rapidly among the non-Orthodox.

As for the Orthodox, the Pew survey shows that the charedi segment is the fastest-growing and far outdistances the modern Orthodox in numbers.

Perhaps Orthodoxy will one day be the only game in town, and Orthodox Jews, in response to what they may feel is the obvious negative effects of Enlightenment, may close ranks and again adopt the Chasam Sofer’s “chadash asur” mantra by rejecting modernity completely, returning to the days when they lived insular lives, had little secularized outside interaction and lacked the influence to keep themselves secure from predators and prejudices. If history has shown us anything, the Jews will always have enemies and being meek is a certain path to oppression.

This, perhaps, is a somewhat melodramatic but nevertheless plausible scenario down the line if the extremists on the left and right have their way, and if our communal leaders do not find ways to keep the attraction of Judaism alive. This is why “Soul Doctor,” in Broadway’s Circle in the Square, is so important. Without much fanfare, the story presents itself as the Journey of a rock-star rabbi. It is actually more than that. The play, written by Danny Wise, is about a man long deceased who continues to inspire so many people back to the faith, who bridged worlds others thought to be unbridgeable, and who nevertheless remained true to his faith. That man was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

The tale takes him from war-torn Europe under Nazi control to New York City, where his parents and his religious teacher, his rebbe, try to imbue in him the need to carry on the faith as a traditional old school rabbi, and pass on the beliefs to rebuild the Jewish people after the Shoah. Shlomo, however, had a special gift. He was not only musical, but loved what music could do for an ailing soul. He went on a spiritual journey to hone his gift by attaching modern sounds and secular, more widely appreciated genres to the songs and prayers of his upbringing and people.

He was challenged, cast out, and chased away because he was using Jazz — learned from New York City nightclubs and the songstress legend Nina Simone — to bring new energy and inspiration back to Jewish prayer. His ties to the secular world posed a threat to the community he grew up in, and the story demonstrates his struggle to maintain both worlds successfully and even bridge them.

Those who know of Shlomo, and we who continue to sing his songs and buy his recordings, know what he accomplished. His music continues to touch millions. He was a true pioneer of his day, using the interesting allure of the modern to ignite flames in the souls of those who otherwise might have been lost. Even as he was being shunned in religious communities, his work crept in and took root.

There are Orthodox and Conservative “Carlebach minyans” and synagogues all over the world today. He accomplished so much and, sadly, died too soon to realize just how far his inspiration traveled.

Maybe “Soul Doctor” will help.

The Pew study shows that Jews are becoming ever less interested, but Shlomo Carlebach’s story has audiences — filled mostly with gentiles and unaffiliated Jews singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” eight times a week.

We have our work cut out for us, but Shlomo continues to show us the way.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive at the New York PR firm5W Public Relations.